Friday, 16 August 2013

Digital spying - we do have a choice...

...argues a certain digital anthropology pundit, published in the FT today. Text follows...

Peter Cochrane, former head of technology for BT, maintains that our digital data will be collected whether we like it or not (“Spy bin ban highlights lure of big data”, FT August 14).

He is wrong to suggest that we can simply extrapolate into the future what we experience now. It is also profoundly depressing to think that technology has an autonomous logic whose implications we should resign ourselves to. Technology, including big data, is what we make of it.

We have the power to create behavioural and legal frameworks to decide that features are harmful and constrain their impacts. In any event, these features are developed and exploited by people, companies and, in the case of the Prism spy programme, governments. These features are not inevitable or necessarily a sign of progress.

Let me illustrate with a historical example, for which I am indebted to internet theorist Evgeny Morozov, of where inevitablists who excused negative externalities in the name of technological progress were confronted. 

In the early 20th century, champions of industrialisation maintained that a noisy living environment, where the din of machinery and motorised transport intrudes, was a necessary penalty of enjoying the benefits of progress. We should simply adapt to the new normal. However, noise abatement movements arose in opposition and inspired the noise pollution regulations that balance our interests today.

I notice that Peter's current title is futurologist but I hope that his version of the future, where noisy robots rule the earth unchecked, does not prevail. In my version we continue to have agency vis a vis our tools and some peace and quiet.

Tuesday, 2 July 2013

Gartner: Digital anthropologists are the latest must have accessory for CIOs.

In an article via @hanmuli, technology research behemoth Gartner has finally noticed that anthropological thinking might be useful for CIOs.

Gartner spokesperson John Mahoney says an anthropologist understands how groups of people work together to get things done... “One of the skills that effective digital organisations increasingly need is the skill to design a digital environment in ways people can use.” Therefore, he argues, CIOs should employ a digital anthropologist post haste (although given his description he probably means ‘digital ethnographer’, as noted by HP in the article*. The issue of whether the prefix digital means anything is something for another post).

Don’t get me wrong, it’s nice to see that Gartner, an important source of information for the technology functions at many large organisations, is spreading the word that ‘it is not enough to be an engineer to be an engineer’ (one of my favourite quotations, hence its pride of place next to this blog’s headline). However, coming from an organisation that trumpets how it identifies trends in technology (exemplified by its hype cycle), Gartner is definitely behind the curve on this one because anthropologists have been profitably deployed at places such as Xerox PARC since the 80’s.

Gartner should also have recommended that CIOs have a designer on the team too: Anthropologists (or in fact ethnographic researchers from several social scientific disciplines) can help organisations better understand the people and culture-related issues that they face, but it usually takes the skills of a designer to help realise solutions.

In terms of further reading, this article is great on how applied anthropologists can bring their perspective to projects, whilst this presentation describes how anthropologically minded ethnographers work with designers. The common theme is that the object of this work is to decipher culture through contextual enquiry into behaviour and lived environments, as a platform for brand strategy, product/service design, implementing organisational strategy or getting to grips with what big data can't tell us about human experience.

To get fundamentalist about it, as digital anthropologist Tom Boellstorff notes (p.53): "ethnography is not a method; it is the written product of a set of methods, as the suffix -graphy (to write) indicates". However, the method of participant observation which is commonly, if inaccurately, used interchangeably with ethnography  (i.e. "becom[ing] known to a community and participat[ing] in its everyday practices" (p.55)) is essential to anthropological ethnography because it allows us to appreciate the differences between what people say (which we gain from elicitation-type research such as interviews) and what they do. As he remarks: "culture [isn't] something in people's heads: a set of viewpoints that an interviewee can tell the researcher...[some]...things we cannot articulate, even to ourselves. Obvious cases of this include things that are repressed or unconscious, an insight dating back to Freud." (p.54)

However, remember two points, expressed in this piece. Firstly ethnography isn’t about building an holistic picture of a culture (which is unachievable, even if we could agree what culture means):

"Ethnography is always a matter of partial connections and patterns, as anthropologist Marilyn Strathern has argued. Ethnographic accounts are always parts that are never just parts of some pre-existing whole (Strathern 1991). One cannot reconstruct a whole culture from ethnographic pieces."

Secondly there is nothing straightforwardly out there for the researcher to find and report back on: The researcher and her interpretation become part of the account:

"Fieldsites are not ‘out there’ ready for representation, rather data is created and curated during fieldwork...ethnographic accounts are generative rather than descriptive…Ethnographic fieldsites have long been argued as not found but located and made (Gupta and Ferguson 1997); as a poetic juxtaposition of collected evidence and writing (Clifford and Marcus 1986; Clifford 1988); or, as an effect of the translation back and forth between fieldwork and deskwork locations (Strathern 1999)."

Sunday, 7 April 2013

YouTube Superstars? Some old chestnuts about social media recycled in an Observer article today

The Observer has just carried a long piece about young Youtubers threatening the traditional TV model. Good on them: traditional TV is a bit of a dinosaur.

On a critical note, the piece makes the attention the Youtubers garner seem fairly effortless, exaggerates the likelihood of ‘normal people’ making a living in this way, doesn’t fully acknowledge the dark side of internet celebrity and makes an uncomplicated link between authenticity and social media content.

Here are some further readings if you like a side order of analysis with your light reading on a Sunday:

Spyer's anthropological take on the dynamics of social organisation of groups of YouTube beauty gurus shows in reality how much effort goes into video production and publicity.

Whilst this Atlantic article demonstrates how the attention only rarely turns into financial success (a fact glossed by the Observer).

And this critique of the culture of celebratisation by boyd uncovers the flip side of attention for those least able to handle it (again largely glossed by the Observer).

Finally, here’s a more nuanced discussion about authenticity in a social media context.

Wednesday, 16 January 2013

Concepts in #digital #anthropology

Just updated the reference resource on my blog with entries on everything from cyberspace to identity - full list of updated and added subjects below:

Network Society
Technological determinism
Moral panics & technology
Communication ecology
Adoption/appropriation of technology
Sociability: changes fostered by new communication technology
Self-presentation online
Networked public sphere
Networked individualism
Filter bubble
Methods in practice
Networked publics
Architectures of control
Social change

Tuesday, 14 August 2012

Does radically simple design always win?

Ajaz Ahmed’s premise is overly simple in his Guardian piece, where he argues that radically simple design always wins. Here are five simple reasons why his argument is suspect:

1. Counter examples show a cluttered aesthetic can prove popular when you make the lens ‘local’ enough (see anthropologist Daniel Miller’s meditations on Trinidadian preferences in ‘The Internet: An Ethnographic Approach’)

2. Other factors contribute to market-leading uptake, perhaps decisively so. Take Google, one of Ajaz’s own examples. To suggest that its uncluttered visual design was the main factor downplays its investment in technology and engineering talent to generate the most relevant search results, along with a few early deals that increased traffic massively e.g. with AOL. Further, was Myspace really decisively undone by Facebook's simpler design as he argues? Or was it a heap of contingencies including network effects?

3. Are some of his paragons of simple design that really simple? Facebook for example has inflicted poorly thought-through privacy-impinging design decisions on its user (see anthropologist danah boyd’s piece ‘Facebook’s Privacy Trainwreck’).

4. Simplicity isn’t always a virtue. Many people believe that TED’s simplicity/accessibility is actually problematic, from its soundbite format which doesn't really enlighten to its guiding belief that technology is an uncomplicated magic wand that will solve humanity's problems (i.e. let's forget the messy business of really understanding a problem and just parachute in more laptops per child). For more on such issues check out this brutal TED takedown from a former speaker.

5. Some of his paragons of simple design might create losers of users. As an open project Wikipedia might be accessible to many people (with an internet connection) and in theory any of these people can get involved as an editor but it presents a skewed view of the world, meaning there is room for improvement. Some facts: 1% of its editors contribute half of all Wikipedia edits. Only 13% of editors are women. Most editors are from the developed world. PR agency Bell Pottinger policed and amend entries on behalf of rich and powerful clients ( Here are more reasons why the reflection of traditional structures in open projects might cause issues - see the first video.

Arguably, Ajaz is absolved from the responsibility of making society a better place because his goal is to foster the effective design and navigation of commercially winning websites. But attending to the broader societal context and what 'winning' might also entail, we see that there is more to design than appealing visuals and functionality and that the issue of simplicity becomes, well, complex.

Friday, 13 July 2012

The "boomlet" in anthropology-inspired business consultancy...and a useful byproduct

I found myself promoting consultancies run by or employing PhD anthropologists in the early noughties boomlet for such companies described by a new post by Laurel George here: They wanted to cultivate a mystique around anthropology/ethnography and position bone fide academically trained practitioners and their approaches to research as essential to solving certain business problems relating to marketing and R&D.

This goal was somewhat undermined by a legion of rivals newly describing their own qualitative approaches as ethnography, making it hard to bring attention to the particular skills possessed by anthropologists and further removing the process from anything the academy would recognise (Simon Roberts lists many of the approaches lumped under the umbrella of ‘ethnography’ in the book edited by Sarah Pink ‘Applications of Anthropology’, pg.86). That's not to ignore the prior adoption and adaptation of ethnography in the hands of other academic disciplines.

Arguments about what is or isn’t ethnography aside, the boomlet did help to spread the word about anthropology. On a personal level, without it my interest in anthropology may have never been piqued to the extent of pursuing a Masters in digital anthropology at UCL.

At a time when some in anthropology are asking "why the discipline has not gained the popularity and respect it deserves" (, those in Laurel's past position and the third of anthropology PhDs for whom there are no academic positions at all (Spencer et al., 2005 – have surely contributed to getting the word out. Beyond inadvertently turning people like me on to the subject, whatever their doubts about participating in commercial activity they, along with other applied anthropologists, are arguably also helping advance the grander goal of “making [culture] available as a scrutinizing lens for our society at large,” a useful byproduct (

Thursday, 23 February 2012

Mining Codes

Interesting talk by UCL Material Culture masters grad Sam Barton who is works at commercial semiotics company Added Value yesterday at the UCL #anthropology department. He ran through the conventional company credentials and then explained the origins of commercial semiotics in literary criticism and cultural studies before engaging in a bit of deconstruction.

In short, brands are cultural entities and if culture informs communications then you need something like semiotics, which draws on a plethora of theories, to see the patterns. Brands need to understand dominant culture to continue to be relevant to it. This inverts Williams' whole dominant/emergent/residual theory of culture whose purpose was to liberate through a revelation of culture's workings. Basically what he was saying was that on a pessimistic view, the very entities which certain theorists of a Marxist persuasion viewed as the enemy are benefiting from these theorists' insights. In a final insult, an academic mystique (I thought much like the scientific mystique around neuromarketing: has been cultivated around semiotics which obscures its nature as a pragmatic technical process (Latour). This is a form of enchantment (Gell).

Semiotics is by no means the only domain in business with roots in academia to cultivate a mystique by association. Anthropologists also 'black box' their work in the corporate space although reservations hinted at in this talk remind me of an interesting paper by Lucy Suchman which examines anthropology's role in the 'cultural turn' and the battle faced by many social scientists with their conscience when: "incorporated economically into an organisation committed to operating in the Market." But with a limited number of academic jobs on offer, you gotta earn a crust and code mining sounds more appealing than coal mining...